LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — As Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow continues to improve, so do the young Wildcats.
Harrow, a sophomore, finished with 15 points, a season-best eight assists and four steals in a 90-38 win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night in the Wildcats’ final nonconference game.
Harrow’s season — his first eligible to play at Kentucky (9-4) after transferring from North Carolina State — has been up and down. It began with a thud, with Harrow scoring no points in 10 minutes in the season opener against Maryland.
He then missed the next four games, one with flu-like symptoms and the next three attending to an undisclosed family matter. When he returned to the team, Harrow said he had to work to rebuild rapport with his teammates.
It took him four games to work back into the starting lineup. In four games since being re-inserted into the Wildcats’ starting five, Harrow has averaged 17 points and 4.3 assists per game. In those four games, he has six turnovers as the team’s primary ball-handler.
Harrow was 5 of 8 from the floor Wednesday, including a 4-of-5 performance from 3-point range.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he’s pleased with his point guard’s continued development, and he was particularly happy with Harrow’s efforts on defense.
“Wow, how about that today? It wasn’t even the steals,” Calipari said. “He played, he competed, he battled, and he got punched in the face today on a play and it didn’t affect him. So I’m more than pleased.”
Kentucky (9-4) never struggled against the Eagles (7-6), using nine unanswered points to create separation early and a 17-2 run midway through the first half to pull away.
The Wildcats’ defense did not allow Eastern Michigan to score on consecutive possessions in the first half.
The Eagles finished 24.2 percent from the floor (15 of 62), digging themselves an early hole and forcing shots in attempts to make up for it. Eastern Michigan was 6 of 28 in the first half, a cold stretch that carried over well into the second: The Eagles did not score for a combined 8:37 of game-time that leaked more than 5 minutes into the second half.
By the time Jalen Ross dunked with 13:38 left in the game to break the scoreless streak, Eastern Michigan was down 53-17.
“They jumped in their press early and — just to see that size and athleticism after a couple of plays for our guys, they got confused,” Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy said. “They kind of lost a little bit of confidence once they turned the ball over and didn’t play the next play like I preach all day, every day of the season. They allowed the pressure to get to them and once we made a few mistakes, they continued to make mistakes.”
From there the Wildcats never relented, running their lead to as large as 47 points before Calipari pulled his main rotation with about 2 ½ minutes to play.
Besides Harrow, four other Kentucky players also finished in double figures: Kyle Wiltjer (17 points), Alex Poythress (16), Julius Mays (13) and Willie Cauley-Stein (11). Nerlens Noel finished with eight points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
Harrow showed a few short lapses of his former self, a nonchalant and flashy player that Calipari has since (mostly) transformed. At one point, Harrow threw in what he called an “impulse” behind-the-back dribble. He quickly picked up the dribble and tried to pass out as a masking technique. He threw the ball away and was quickly pulled.
“Yeah, when I did the behind-the-back dribble, he took me out,” Harrow said. “Then he said, ‘If you want to be cool, you can sit over here.’ I said ‘OK, I’m not cool anymore. Let me get back in the game.’ And he put me right back in. I was able to finish the game off, and everything was good.”
Harrow said he’s learned recently from Poythress, who went through a struggling stretch of a few games before his 16-point performance Wednesday. Poythress’ experience and his road map to recovering from it motivated Harrow to work as hard, he said, and it led to one of the best games of his season.
“(Poythress) had a real good practice yesterday, going hard and nobody had to tell him to go hard,” Harrow said. “We just have to continue with that practice from yesterday, just keep going hard no matter who you’re playing.”